It’s a long drive to Santa Cruz, and after any long drive there are three things I want — quiet, real food, and a chair that stands still. I got the food part. “Family get together” takes on a new meaning with the Ryan family.
I should have known it from the minute I stepped out of the car at Aunt Joyce’s house. The beautiful wooded area and moss-covered stones would have impressed me with their calm beauty, if it weren’t for the parade emerging from the garage door. ‘Roaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!’ I looked down and saw a pudgy auburn-haired toddler kicking my leg.
‘Niko! Where’d you go?’ called Aunt Cathy, obviously unaware of my current state of discomfort. But Niko, my three-year-old second cousin, had grown bored of his prey and ran back to his “Aunty Caffy,” as his mischievous older brother Julian emerged from behind the car. Everyone was there at the first reunion of the five Ryan siblings in several years.
There was Cathy, the independent filmmaker known for going on hunger strikes as a child; John, the living terror who found every possible way to attack, maim, or otherwise draw blood from his siblings and other children; Joyce, the mild-mannered middle child; my dad, Dave, John’s main victim and forced boxing student; and Kevin, the baby with the laugh and the charm, who somehow ended up at least half a foot taller than everyone in the family.
There was no lack of stories. Cathy proudly recalled the time when she, emerging from her Indian tee-pee in the backyard was stuck with a sharpened arrow in her head by four-year-old John. And when we tired of John-stories, there were stories of Uncle Sonny’s Kids, the Ten Terrors that would be plopped off with my Grandma Ginny and reek such havoc that the neighbors would call in their children and lock all the doors and windows.
The five Ryans were the symbol of a disappearing era. They had grown up in apartments and old houses along the east coast, living in the old Irish neighborhoods known for hoards of uncontrollable kids and a vibrancy of life that has since been lost in modern suburbia.
There were no organized after school activities, but various neighborhood mischief led by John or one of Sonny’s kids, usually including some immature and pointless prank, such as putting mud wads in the underwear hanging on clotheslines along the street — a plan of such genius that John was treated to spankings by every well-meaning mother on Harrison St. And there were the crazy aunts and uncles who would be called on to baby-sit and would either give up and lock themselves in one room of the house, or find the whole pack of youngsters completely charming and take them on road trips or teach them to drive cars on the beach. Most known for her extensive babysitting skills was Aunt Grace, who’s catchphrase, “go play in the freeway,” has become the cornerstone of Ryan child-rearing.
By dinner time, I found myself sitting at the table with people I could have known all my life. We were all a family again. Cousins had flown in from Texas, we had made the trek from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the Santa Cruz coast, and even Aunt Cathy’s poodle Luna had managed a visit from Berkeley.
This was what a home-away-from-home felt like. Everything was considered perfectly normal, and really, you could do anything around these people and compared to the stories the “Five Ryans” told, it would seem like nothing. My brother Matt even threw one of Aunt Joyce’s prized tomatoes at Kevin’s abnormally large forehead, and no one made a scene. (Except for Kevin’s wife Lisa, who got caught in crossfire. She isn’t exactly used to the Ryans yet.)
That night we all slept on the floor of Joyce’s small rental house next door (except Lisa of course.) I conked out in the corner of the cramped bedroom floor with Aunt Cathy and my five-year-old cousin Julian on one side, celebrating Julian’s first ever sleepover, and a pleasant combination of my brother’s feet and Cousin Jennie’s white blonde curls on the other. I slept better than I had in my whole life.
Some would say that it wasn’t a special vacation. We didn’t travel very far, didn’t stay in a nice hotel, and didn’t go around to any touristy sights. But I learned something important that trip — it’s not where you go, but who you’re with. I traveled only three hours way, but through the stories and the family, I could have been back on the steps of Harrison St. house in Connecticut, in a different place, and a different time. I will always remember this: no tour group is better than your family, and the best journeys are always the journeys of the heart.
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